It’s hard to imagine the kind of person who would read all the way through Amazon Web Services’ massive terms of service agreement. At more than 26,000 words, the document is denser and more digressive than Tristram Shandy, a veritable post-apocalyptic wasteland of legalese that dictates how users can and cannot employ products from the e-retailer’s massively profitable cloud computing division. Formidable as it is, however, someone managed to make it through. And he or she found something wonderful—possibly with a slight nudge from Amazon itself, though it’s conceivable that it was discovered independently.
As various sources—Venture Beat seems to have been among the first—have reported, the company’s latest update to its ToS (announced on Monday, Feb. 8) contains a clause voiding some of its restrictions in the event of a zombie outbreak. Of course, it doesn’t actually say zombie anywhere, instead cloaking the viral menace in winkingly formal language:
However, this restriction will not apply in the event of the occurrence (certified by the United States Centers for Disease Control or successor body) of a widespread viral infection transmitted via bites or contact with bodily fluids that causes human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue and is likely to result in the fall of organized civilization.
The restriction in question bars users from integrating Amazon Web Services’ new Lumberyard gaming engine “with life-critical or safety-critical systems,” including medical or military equipment. Basically, that means you can’t use the software to program robot doctors or control weaponized drones, a requirement unlikely to come into play, unless Lumberyard is far more powerful than it appears. In that sense, the zombie exception makes light of a concern that is only marginally more probable than a plague of walking dead.
Charming as it is, clauses like this one don’t actually encourage us to read the terms of service. Instead they mostly work to make a joke of our failure to do so. A few publications that have reported on the zombie clause have taken the story as an opportunity to point out other, less sexy, details from the document. Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland, for example, notes that the engine collects information about where, how, and when it gets put to work. It’s not clear, though, that this is especially sinister, let alone that different from the data collection practices of other software companies.
Cutesy aberrations train us to look for anomalies instead of encouraging us to make sense of the norms that actually shape our lives. Last year, Slate’s Lily Hay Newman examined the all-caps sections in terms of service agreements. Such sections were once meant to clarify what we should pay attention to, but in reality, our eyes tend to skip right over them. A more idiosyncratic approach to intelligibility shows up in R. Sikoryak’s comic book adaptation of the iTunes terms and conditions. That method, alas, is unlikely to see widespread adoption.
Amazon’s jape feels more like viral marketing for Lumberyard than an invitation to look carefully—or at all, for that matter. At best, it’s a reminder that most of us have become zombies of a sort, the kind that click without reading. Can anyone help us find some brains?